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Women's Suffrage (Special Collections)

This research guide presents Special Collections material that demonstrates womens' fight for suffrage.

Women's Clubs

black and white composite portraits of ossoli circle parade of presidents from 1885 to 1912 with a total of 8 oval shaped portraits. .
Portrait composite of the first presidents of the Ossoli Circle.
(Ossoli Circle Records, MS.3822)

Historically, the roles of women and men have been divided into two spheres of activity: the private and the public, respectively. Women not only wanted to participate in the latter, they were also very aware of how closely entwined the two spheres were. A movement of women's organizations took off in the late 19th century.

Through clubs, women gathered to identify and solve problems within their communities while also gaining influence. These groups empowered women to address critical needs in their communities like education, elder care, healthcare, and more. Through participation in these organizations, more women began to see themselves as civic actors. These clubs also offered women a space for fellowship and learning and by extension, they became training grounds for learning activist skills such as organizing and speaking.

In addition to community-based needs, many women's clubs began advocating for large-scale social and political reforms. In addition to the suffrage movement, women's organizations were vital to other crusades like the temperance movement as well as anti-slavery and abolition. As more and more women's clubs sprouted up across the country, umbrella organizations like the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC) and National Association of Colored Women (NACW), founded by Mary Church Terrell, were started to coordinate efforts among the smaller groups. Considering that these women had no political voice before 1920, the work accomplished by these clubs through their service and determination was nothing short of remarkable.

Much of the women's club movement was geared toward middle-class white women, and while there were clubs all over the country made up of women from various racial, religious, and social groups, organizations often remained segregated. During the suffrage movement, clubs were essential tools for African American women and other activists from marginalized groups as they were largely ignored by the national suffrage associations. 

Momentum within the club movement was lost after the passing of the 19th amendment as other avenues for change opened up to women; however, some women's clubs persisted and continue to be centers of change. 

Exploring the papers and records of Knoxville-based clubs and clubwomen can illuminate their hard work and impact on their communities:

photograph of pages from the newman circle minute book. Paper is marked up with red and blue lines, and text is written in cursive.
Pages from the Newman Circle Minute Book. (MS.0089)

Mary Boyce Temple Papers, 1879-1920 (MS.0022)
Mary Boyce Temple was a civically-active and influential woman in Knoxville, Tennessee. The only daughter of prominent Knoxville judge O.P. Temple and Scotia Caledonia Hume, Mary graduated from Vassar College in 1877. Back in Knoxville, Mary was active in the formation and participation of several women's clubs and organizations. She served as the first president of the Ossoli Circle in 1885; she served as the first secretary of the General Federated Women's Club of Knoxville; and she organized local chapters of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the League of Women Voters. Mary also represented the state of Tennessee in several international settings, often as the only woman in the room.

Ossoli Circle Records, 1903-2018 (MS.3822)
In 1885, Lizzie Crozier French founded the Ossoli Circle, a literary women's club in Knoxville, Tennessee. Still in existence today, this club has been influential in bettering the educational and economic opportunities for Tennessee women. The earliest club members chose to name the organization for Margaret Fuller Ossoli, noted feminist and journalist. Throughout its existence, the club regularly records meeting minutes, annual reports, and more. Not only serving as an avenue for networking and learning for its members, the club's philanthropic efforts have also uplifted its community.

Athene Circle Records and Other Materials, 1904-1930 (MS.0317)
Cornelia Ross and Helen Peed founded the Athene Circle in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1897. The organization served as a place of support and intellectual encouragement for its members who regularly studied and presented on topics of state, national, and international history.

Newman Circle Minute Book, 1923-1928 (MS.0089)
The Newman Circle was a women's club that met in Knoxville, Tennessee. The club's minute book records their biweekly meetings, officers, and topics of discussion. Founder Katherine "Kate" Keogh White was also an active member of the Ossoli Circle, the Knoxville chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the East Tennessee Historical Society.

sepia studio portrait of three identified women posing together. Each are wearing high collared, white shirts, and wide-banded hats.
A studio portrait of three unidentified women. (O. L. Hensley Photographs, MS.1634)